What a Two-Tiered SERP Means for Content Strategy


If you’re a big site competing to rank for popular head terms, where’s the best place to focus your content strategy? According to a hypothesis by the good folks at Distilled, the answer may lie in perfectly satisfying searcher intent.

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Video Transcription

Hi, Whiteboard Friday fans. I’m Will Critchlow, one of the founders at Distilled, and what I want to talk about today is joining the dots between some theoretical work that some of my colleagues have been doing and some of the client work that we’ve been doing recently and the results that we’ve been seeing from that in the wild and what I think it means for strategies for different-sized sites going on from here.

Correlations and a hypothesis

The beginning of this I credit to one of my colleagues, Tom Capper, THCapper on Twitter, who presented at our Search Love London conference a presentation entitled “The Two-Tiered SERP,” and I’m going to describe what that means in just a second. But what I’m going to do today is talk about what I think that the two-tiered SERP means for content strategy going forward and base that a little bit on some of what we’re seeing in the wild with some of our client projects.

What Tom presented at Search Love London was he started by looking at the fact that the correlation between domain authority and rankings has decreased over time. So he pulled out some stats from February 2017 and looked at those same stats 18 months later and saw a significant drop in the correlation between domain authority and rankings. This ties into a bunch of work that he’s done and presented elsewhere around potentially less reliance on links going forward and some other data that Google might be using, some other metrics and ranking factors that they might be using in their place, particularly branded metrics and so forth.

But Tom saw this drop and had a hypothesis that it wasn’t just an across-the-board drop. This wasn’t just Google not using links anymore or using links less. It was actually a more granular effect than that. This is the two-tiered SERP or what we mean by the two-tiered SERP. So a search engine result page, a SERP, you’ve got some results at the top and some results further down the page.

What Tom found — he had this hypothesis that was born out in the data — was that the correlation between domain authority and rankings was much higher among the positions 6 through 10 than it was among the top half of the search results page and that this can be explained by essentially somewhat traditional ranking factors lower down the page and in lower competition niches and that at the top of the page, where there’s more usage data, greater search volume and so forth in these top positions, that traditional ranking factors played less of a part.

They maybe get you into the consideration set. There are no domains ranking up here that are very, very weak. But once you’re in the consideration set, there’s much less of a correlation between these different positions. So it’s still true on average that these positions 1 through 5 are probably more authoritative than the sites that are appearing in lower positions. But within this set there’s less predictive value.

The domain authority is less predictive of ranking within this set than it is of ranking within this set. So this is the two-tiered SERP, and this is consistent with a bunch of data that we’ve seen across the place and in particular with the outcomes that we’re seeing among content campaigns and content strategies for different kinds of sites.

At Distilled, we get quite a lot of clients coming to us wanting either a content strategy put together or in some cases coming to us essentially with their content strategy and saying, “Can you execute this? Can you help us execute this plan?” It’s very common for that plan to be, “We want to create a bunch of big pieces of content that get a ton of links, and we’re going to use that link authority to make our site more authoritative and that is going to result in our whole site doing better and ranking better.”

An anonymized case study

We’ve seen that that is performing differently in different cases, and in particular it’s performing better on smaller sites than it is on big sites. So this is a little anonymized case study. This is a real example of a story that happened with one of our consulting clients where we put in place a content strategy for them that did include a plan to build the domain authority because this was a site that came to us with a domain authority significantly below that of their key competitors, also with all of these sites not having a ton of domain authority.

This was working in a B2B space, relatively small domains. They came to us with that, and we figured that actually growing the authority was a key part of this content strategy and over the next 18 months put out a bunch of pieces that have done really well and generated a ton of press coverage and traction and things. Over that time, they’ve actually outstripped their key competitors in the domain authority metrics, and crucially we saw that tie directly to increases in traffic that went hand-in-hand with this increase in domain authority.

But this contrasts to what we’ve seen with some much larger sites in much more competitive verticals where they’re already very, very high domain authority, maybe they’re already stronger than some of their competitors and adding to that. So adding big content pieces that get even more big authoritative links has not moved the needle in the way that it might have done a few years ago.

That’s totally consistent with this kind of setup, where if you are currently trying to edge in the bottom or you’re competing for less competitive search terms, then this kind of approach might really work for you and it might, in fact, be necessary to get into the consideration set for the more competitive end. But if you’re operating on a much bigger site, you’ve already got the competitive domain authority, you and your competitors are all very powerful sites, then our kind of hypothesis is that you’re going to be needing to look more towards the user experience, the conversion rate, and intent research.

Are you satisfying searcher intent for competitive head terms?

What is somebody who performs this search actually looking to do? Can you satisfy that intent? Can you make sure that they don’t bounce back to the search results and click on a competitor? Can you make sure that in fact they stay on your site, they get done the thing they want to get done, and it all works out for them, because we think that these kinds of things are going to be much more powerful for moving up through the very top end of the most competitive head terms.

So when we’re working on a content strategy or putting our creative team to work on these kinds of things on bigger sites, we’re more likely to be creating content directly designed to rank. We might be creating content based off a ton of this research, and we’re going to be incrementally improving those things to try and say, “Have we actually satisfied the perfect intent for this super competitive head term?”

What we’re seeing is that’s more likely to move the needle up at this top end than growing the domain authority on a big site. So I hope you found that interesting. I’m looking forward to a vigorous discussion in the comments on this one. But thank you for joining me for this week’s Whiteboard Friday. I’ve been Will Critchlow from Distilled. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com


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